Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The 18 Most Rewarding 3e D&D Books for Pathfinder GMs (Part 3)

Rerun week continues here at The Daily Bestiary, with a “Best of” list I submitted to Reddit’s r/rpg subreddit last March.  Enjoy Part 3!

9) Faiths of Eberron Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Ari Marmell, C.A. Suleiman

No D&D fantasy setting has ever done the full scope of religion as well as Eberron. None. Not even Golarion or the Scarred Lands. [Edit: As I mentioned before, Scarred Lands does origin myths better than any other setting, but Eberron represents the day-to-day work of religion better, as well as the many forms it can take.  Pathfinder has a number of books that take religion seriously and do it well—most recently Faiths & Philosophies—and the Sean K Reynolds articles on the gods in Pathfinder Adventure Path have been fantastic. But Eberron still takes the cake for the richest variety and most cohesive exploration of religious systems right out of the box.]

A good pantheon (that people actually worship as an entire pantheon!—that’s actually rare in fantasy gaming, where clerics and paladins tend to have a patron power). An evil pantheon. A monotheistic religion (again, a rare thing in fantasy RPGs). Blood worship. Druidism. Ancestor worship and animism. Cults and quackery.

Eberron has them all. Faiths of Eberron blows them out.

And for each one of the above, it offers subsects, heresies, schisms, and feats, spells, and powers reflecting all of the above (many of which are easily importable to Pathfinder and Golarion). Remember how you’d read Camarilla books for Vampire: The Masquerade and be told one story, only to have the Sabbat books tell you with equal authority that everything you’d just read was a lie, until you didn’t know what to believe? FoE does that from page to page.

If you love mythology and church intrigue, no matter what the setting…if you ever wanted to create a believable, non-crazy evil cult…if you want your cleric or druid players to shine…or if you play a cleric or druid yourself…you need this book.

Added bonus: It’s a top-tier book written by a female author. That’s a good thing. This is a dangerously sweeping generalization, but my gut is that I’ve seen way more women’s names listed as editors or on the art/design side than I have as first author. (The exception being Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel, who has the misfortune to get handed unenviable assignments like Monster Manual Numbers Higher Than II and Races No One Likes. It seriously makes you wonder whose car she rear-ended in the WotC parking lot to get stuck with those gigs.)

So props to Wilkes for both getting this book and knocking it out of the park.

(PS: “Big news, Gwen! You’re writing the Player’s Handbook…” “Yes!” *pumps fist* “...VII.” “I hate you.”)

8) Unapproachable East Richard Baker, Matt Forbeck, Sean K Reynolds

An excellent setting book that does almost everything right. New, interesting races worth playing? Check. A variety of prestige classes unique to the setting that make appealing PCs or NPCs? Check. Feats and spells that enliven the setting without becoming an encyclopedia? Check. Monsters worth fighting? Check (especially trolls and hags!). And setting descriptions that make the many cultures come alive and inspire adventure ideas? Check.

In fact, it’s practically a Core +1 book. You still need the Campaign Setting, especially since Unapproachable East is missing certain key prestige classes like the Hathran and the Red Wizard. But on the whole, you can effortlessly build a campaign based on this book. Best of all, Pathfinder GMs can drop much of this right into Golarion. Iobaria is perfect, and elements of the book can fit Irrisen, Brevoy, the Lands of the Linnorm Kings, or Varisia as well.

Further reading: If you like UE, Shining South is an enjoyable runner-up that also serves as a nice complement to Serpent Kingdoms. Interestingly, where UE starts strong with really compelling player races (gnolls, spirit folk, hagspawn, plant-like volodni, etc.), prestige classes, and monsters, and then settles into decent setting descriptions, SS goes the opposite direction. The initial race/class stuff isn’t super-exciting (Halruaa never quite comes alive the way magocracies like Glantri or Alphatia have), but the book’s strength is in the variety of settings in the gazetteer-style second half—the half-drow nation of Dambrath especially is someplace I want to set adventures.) [Edit: I expected so much more from the Forgotten Realms’ storied Halruaa—I suppose I was spoiled by the Mystara setting’s magic-user nations. Also, it’s becoming clear that magocracies are not the place to be during a big setting/edition change.  The entire continent of Alphatia was sunk beneath the waves in the last gasp of ’90s D&D, and Halruaa was destroyed by the Spellplague in the run-up to 4e Forgotten Realms.]

7) Races of Eberron Jesse Decker, Matthew Sernett, Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel, Keith Baker

This is an Eberron book, but it’s packaged in the brown of a core rulebook. Why? To quote the Introduction, “We’re so pleased with these new races that we want all DMs and players to think about including them in their games.”

Bold words. But this book bears them out. The warforged, changeling, and shifter races especially are worthwhile additions to your game whatever the setting, and many of the entries (such as the changeling Psychology section) add depth to the races in a way the Eberron Campaign Setting didn’t have room for. (In fact, the changeling philosophies inspired my take on fetchlings in Pathfinder.) And most Pathfinder GMs could easily find a home for shifters in Varisia or Ustalav, changelings in Absalom or Cheliax, and warforged near the Worldwound or in a magical kingdom like Nex or the remnants of Jistka. [Edit: I bet Paizo’s Blood of the Moon material and RoE’s shifter feats would synergize well, too.]

Or maybe you love Pathfinder but want to break away from Golarion. RoE also rethinks all the core races, from ancestor-worshipping elves to mercantile dwarves to jungle drow to halfling healers and dinosaur riders. Even if you never play in Eberron, you can borrow ideas from it for your own worldbuilding effortlessly with this book.

6) Manual of the Planes Jeff Grubb, Bruce R. Cordell, and David Noonan

I’m on record on my blog gushing over Todd Stewart’s The Great Beyond. But Pathfinder’s stripped-down multiverse could use some more nooks and crannies. (No true neutral plane?) [Edit: In a comment, Todd Stewart reminded me that I was overlooking Pharasma’s Boneyard—there’s a lot more space there than just her realm, and also aeons and psycopomps hadn’t been added to the game yet. My bad! That said, I still love the Great Wheel’s intermediate planes.]

Enter the Manual of the Planes. It doesn’t have the flare or the tone of the Planescape books, but those are a) 2nd edition books outside the realm of discussion and b) so beloved you’ll have to pay platinum pieces to get them. But MotP is a very enjoyable tour through the classic Great Wheel multiverse—including those great in-between-alignment places like Carceri and Ysgard—and it’s one you’ll find yourself coming back to over and over. It also features some easily importable demiplanes and thought-provoking suggestions for creating your own multiverses as well.

If you like the Outer Planes at all, get this book. Honestly, I’ve probably read and re-read it more than any other book on this list—I was tempted to put it at #3—but TGB’s existence undercuts its utility for the Pathfinder GM, knocking it down a few pegs.

Further reading: I have a really hard time recommending the Planar Handbook. Despite some interesting PC races—I love the buomman—the book was too much filler and not enough substance.

5) Serpent Kingdoms Ed Greenwood, Eric L. Boyd, Darrin Drader

I’m gonna catch heat for putting this above Manual of the Planes. And if this was a straight-up “Best of” ranking, and if Paizo’s The Great Beyond didn’t exist, I’d totally deserve it. But this is a list for Pathfinder GMs…and TGB does exist…and there are still enough copies of Planescape supplements floating around out there to remind us that no matter how wonderful MotP is, it’s a sanitized, tamed version of a wild, weirder, and more inspired multiverse.

Also, expectations matter. At time of publication, there was no reason to expect Serpent Kingdoms would as good as it turned out. It was a setting book with no setting—it didn’t even have a map—covering the leftover regions of a continent that still hadn’t had a lot of its core fleshed out in 3rd edition (presumably because most of the audience still had their 1st and 2nd Ed. books). And it covered the yuan-ti and other leftover reptilefolk for a fandom that loved drow and beholders. Frankly, it looked like filler—one of those “This is the only cranny we haven’t explored yet” books you’d expect from a setting that spanned three editions.

But one should never underestimate Sir Greenwood, especially when paired with his squire Boyd. (And I’m guessing Drader was no slouch either.) Because SK is amazing.

On its surface, SK examines the history and customs of Faerûn’s scaled races, with an emphasis on yuan-ti, nagas, and lizardfolk, plus brief looks at the various miscellaneous races that have popped up along the way (like the fascinating extraplanar khaasta). Along the way there are prestige classes, monsters, special equipment and poisons, descriptions of major scaled one cities and settlements, and all the usual stuff you expect to find in one of these supplements.

But this being a Greenwood book, there is lore and flavor bursting out of every paragraph. And shadowing all of the above is a series of unfolding revelations about the sarrukh, a progenitor race of snake-men that are a) practically all-powerful (even the factory model clocks in at CR 21), and b) that have been pulling the scaled ones’ strings since ancient times. Why haven’t we heard of them before? Because they’re just waking up from several centuries of slumber—and they’re pissed.

I know, I know. I can hear you screaming at me right now—“This book is a retcon!”…“Just what we need, GM Mary Sues in snakeskins”—but I’m telling you it’s great and it works.

In fact, it’s a delight. The sarrukh and yuan-ti faction histories read like novels because of all the infighting and betrayal. And because you’ve got Boyd writing this, even the gods are involved—and at least one of them is at risk of dying because its own worshippers are too devious for their own good. It’s high-stakes stuff, and all that’s missing is a bunch of meddling PCs to tip the scales (pun!) with their involvement.

(More Greenwood/Boyd/Drader deliciousness: Most of the aforementioned gods are fragments of the World Serpent, a Power that fractured because a) its faith demanded sacrifices; b) eventually, there weren’t enough sarrukh to sacrifice; so c) it shattered rather than betray the commandments it itself had established. One of the naga gods fractured, too, in a case of ontological indigestion after devouring one of her rivals. Like I said, great stuff. Oh, and those missing maps I complained about? They were released online.)

So if you’re a Realms player, this is a must. But what does it offer the Pathfinder GM? Well, D&D’s yuan-ti and Pathfinder’s serpentfolk are close enough you can just swap one for the other. And the Serpent Skull Adventure Path is just begging for many of the monsters and feats in this book. Plus once you’ve concluded the events in that arc, your PCs will be level 16 or 17—just about powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with the sarrukh. It’s been well established that the serpentfolk of Golarion are a once-slumbering threat just now reëmerging after centuries of silence. Sound familiar? The sarrukh can be the epic lords of these snake-people, still in control (or desperate to hold onto it) after all these years. [Edit: And now that Mythic Adventures is out, PCs and the sarrukh can really fight it out.]

And even if you don’t run Serpent Skull, there’s plenty of use you can get out of this supplement. Steal some monsters, spells, or poisons. Borrow one of the encounters in the back of the book. And most of the cities you can drop into Golarion wholesale. After all, jungle environs tend to be lightly described in most fantasy RPGs—Garund has plenty of room, and it’s going to be years before we get a Vudra book. SK has 40+ pages of cities, nations, and secret societies you can just drop right in.

But more than that, SK is just a great read. Maybe it will inspire a future campaign of epic proportions, or maybe it will just sit by your bedside. You won’t be disappointed either way.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the ROI factor. Guess how much a copy costs at time of writing? $9.99 used. Brand-spanking new? A mighty $16. Skip the movies this week and hit the bookstore.

Stay tuned for Part 4…

My original version of this entry ended at Book #4 on the countdown, but I’m going to save that one for tomorrow.  Again, here’s the original thread if you want to see redditors’ comments.  And thanks for the reblogs and comments—I’m enjoying seeing your reactions and lists!

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